In October 2021 I finally made it to Canada! Despite growing up in a state that borders the world’s 2nd largest country, my adventures had never taken me north into Canadian territory. With COVID restrictions loosening, I decided to take a long weekend adventure to Toronto, an urban destination that had held my attention for a long time. The bonus of visiting was I also got to reconnect with old friends I had met while traveling in Australia!
COVID Canada Travel Tips
This information is subject to change, of course, and hopefully I remember to update my blog someday in the future when hopefully we don’t have to worry about or talk about COVID anymore. But for now, be prepared and read the local rules for traveling before you go. Plan to show your ID and proof of vaccination at every bar and restaurant. Take a PCR test for entry into the country and plan to get the results early enough. Bring plenty of masks too to switch out during your travels. Everything was pretty smooth beyond that, but check The Canadian Government’s travel website before your trip.
Top Things To Do in Toronto
Royal Ontario Museum
I visited the museum on my first full day in Toronto, and it was the perfect way to start my exploration of the city before I could check into my Airbnb. The Royal Ontario Museum is right in the heart of downtown Toronto and it’s a huge museum – you could easily spend an entire day wandering the different exhibits, from natural history to incredible art from all over the world. I particularly enjoyed the section dedicated to the indigenous cultures and history of the first people’s of Canada, as well as the special exhibit they had ongoing dedicated to whales.
It was a great first “tourist” experience in Toronto, and definitely a place I recommend to any visitors. A great rainy day activity too! You can purchase your tickets ahead of time, online, but I had no issue or wait on Saturday when I bought them right there.
This is a super hipster, retro, cool neighborhood of Toronto is a must-see. It has a huge concentration of bars and restaurants, vintage boutiques, markets, and more. It’s certainly worth a wander – be prepared that it will be super busy on the weekends. Go for a stroll and enjoy seeing live music or get a drink at one of the many favorite bars in the area. This would also be a great spot to shop for a unique souvenir.
While I wouldn’t say it’s the most visually-appealing Chinatown I’ve been to, the Chinatown in Toronto has a ton of great restaurants, markets, shops, and more. Here I tried Juicy Dumpling and Mother’s Dumplings (more on these spots below) and enjoyed a walk around the busy streets. It’s also a good place to buy any tourist crap you might need – I got a great magnet, dishtowel, and some lovely Canadian socks in a store here.
Ferry to Toronto Islands
This was a fabulous way to spend a weekend day while in Toronto. If you’re visiting during a sunny, warm day, you can go to the beach or rent a boat to party on the water around the Islands. We took the water taxi across, which is a quick trip, and the views of the skyline alone made it worth it. All the islands are connected so you can walk between them, but you can also choose ferry drop offs at Centre, Hanlan, or Ward’s Island. The ferry costs $8.50/person (roundtrip) but it runs less often, the water taxi is more immediate and costs $10/person each way.
Once you’re on the islands, there’s a lot to do! Go for a walk to explore the islands, there are restaurants and bars, lovely beaches, boardwalks, an amusement park, and a lot more to check out on a day trip here. You can rent bikes to get around quickly, we enjoyed walking to Ward’s Beach and eventually having a drink at The Riviera Ward’s Island Kitchen.
Toronto’s CN Tower Experience
This 1,815 ft-tall building is a a telecommunications tower and is the icon of the Toronto Skyline. Going up to the top is a touristy thing to do, but it’s a must-do when in Toronto.
Buy your tickets online and have them ready to go right on your phone, you’ll purchased a timed entry slot and be whisked up in an elevator to enjoy stunning 360° views of both downtown and Lake Ontario. It costs $40 CAD, making it the most expensive tourist thing I did while in Canada, but I’d say it’s highly worth it. You can grab a drink at the top too and enjoy the view.
The Vog Vault at the John Fluevog Shoe Store on Queen Street
This is a fun and quick stop if you’re wandering around Queen Street and the Trinity-Bellwoods neighborhood of Toronto. It’s just a room in an expensive shoe store but it’s an Instagrammable spot and it was close to my Airbnb. I didn’t do a great job with my photo, though. It’s free and there was no line or wait when I visited. Just make sure you go to the John Fluevog on Queen Street West, there are several locations in the city.
Distillery Historic District
This awesome area of Toronto is home to markets, art galleries, artisan shops, and restaurants. It’s a top place to visit on the weekends and I highly recommend exploring. This is where we had brunch at Cluny Bistro, checked out some art galleries, and drank a coffee from Balzac’s. It’s a car-free zone where you can wander cobblestone streets and check out the historic buildings. If you’re in Toronto during the holiday season, this is the site of the Holiday market so be sure not to miss it.
Another historical sight to see – not far from the Distillery District. Check out the Gooderham building and snap a pic of this iconic Toronto landmark. It’s located at 49 Wellington Street East in Toronto near St. Lawrence Market.
Toronto’s Graffiti Alley
While there are formal Graffiti Tours in Toronto, I didn’t have time to fit one in my itinerary, so a casual wander down Graffiti Alley was what I did. I enjoyed the street art a lot, it reminded me of downtown Melbourne and it was a fun free thing to do while walking through Toronto. Graffiti Alley is located one block south from Queen Street between Augusta Avenue and McDougall Lane.
3D Toronto Sign
Another iconic spot in Toronto, the 3D sign is worth a quick visit to snap a photo. It’s in Nathan Philips Square, I walked here from my Airbnb. There wasn’t a line or a big crowd, so I quickly took a few pictures and went on my way. Not a must-do, but worth it if you’re walking by anyway.
This massive castle on the north side of Toronto is an incredible estate that is DEFINITELY worth a visit if you’re in Toronto during a festive season. Being there in October, it was fully decked out for Halloween and was the most impressive haunted house experience I’ve ever had. We walked for about an hour, and reached a bar that had a DJ and a fun party atmosphere, and that was only the halfway point! It’s 100% worth the cost, I am not someone who is into Halloween or Haunted Houses, but the Casa Loma haunted experience was definitely worth it.
Casa Loma is also decorated for Christmas and I would imagine other holidays, so be sure to check it out during your visit.
Restaurants & Bars in Toronto
My first meal in the city was at Hemingways, and it did not disappoint! Located in downtown Toronto, this New Zealand-inspired restaurant offers a great rooftop bar and patio, awesome drinks, delicious brunch and super friendly staff. It was a fabulous way to start my Saturday in the city and fuel up before heading to the Royal Ontario Museum. I enjoyed a Cesar (Canada’s take on a Bloody Mary – with Clamato juice instead of bloody mix) and their Egg’s Hemingway – a Benedict with smoked salmon instead of ham.
5 Soup Dumplings for $3? It’s a to-go spot only, no dine-in seating, so I grabbed a dumpling snack and wandered into the Kensington Market area to find a park to sit and eat them, which was apparently something a lot of people do based on the crowds I saw around me. Definitely pop into Juicy Dumpling in Toronto’s Chinatown if you’re in need of a quick and delicious snack. The line was long but their team moves quickly and efficiently.
Banh Mi TO
After walking several miles around Toronto, I needed a quick snack to tide me over until dinner. Banh Mi TO offers half banh-mi sandwiches, which was the PERFECT solution to my oncoming hanger. It’s super cheap and delicious. Stop here for a full meal or a half-banh mi treat. It’s located right on Queen Street West.
Located in the heart of Chinatown, this place had rave reviews for their dumplings, and within one bite I could see why. They offer a huge variety of dumplings, not only the traditional styles but some unique dessert dumplings too. It’s cheap, with friendly service too. Head to Mother’s Dumplings to get your fix when in Chinatown in Toronto.
This was the best meal I had in Toronto. We went here before our haunted house experience, and everything was amazing. Sake bombs, craft cocktails, gyoza, tofu, and more. There’s a reason why it’s considered the best Izakaya restaurant in Canada. Kinka Izakaya offers an amazing atmosphere, excellent service, and delicious food. If there was one place in Toronto I would recommend to anyone visiting, it’s this spot. My drink which had grapefruit in it, literally came with a fresh grapefruit half and a juicer for me to add my own. Everything was delicious. Go here.
Death & Taxes
A cozy, stylish cocktail bar and pub, Death & Taxes is the perfect spot to start a night out in the Trinity-Bellwoods/Beaconsfield Village area of Toronto. I had an old fashioned and pizza, and it was the first stop on a fun night out in a trendy area. The food was just okay, it’s typical bar food, but the drinks were awesome.
Cluny Bistro & Boulangerie
This French-inspired restaurant in the distillery district is offers an elegant brunch experience! After several days of eating less-than-healthy food, I went for a salad instead of my usual heavy brunch preferences, but I was not disappointed. It was massive, with fresh goat cheese, pomegranate seeds, crispy onions, quinoa, and romaine. This is a really beautiful restaurant, worth a visit for a cocktail and to just see the interior at the very least. If you’re planning to visit Cluny Bistro for brunch, make a reservation or plan to be on a wait list, we went and got a coffee while waiting for a table.
Another amazing spot for cocktails, Reposado offers live music and a trendy atmosphere in the Ossington neighborhood. Sarah and I had a night cap here, I sipped the Paloma and it was delicious.
The Dog & Bear British Pub
Another cocktail stop. It was a cool British pub with friendly staff, it would be a great place to watch a hockey game thanks to the many TVs around the bar. Definitely an excellent destination for the traditional English Pub experience.
For being fast-food delivery, this poutine was pretty delicious. It’s french fries covered in cheese curds and gravy. While the best poutine is found in Quebec, Toronto has plenty of places offering this dish, and it’s worth a try if you’ve never had it. I wouldn’t get it as takeout again, it would have been much better to enjoy with a beer at a bar – I’ll have to plan on it for a trip to Montreal, the next Canadian spot on my list.
Coffee Shops in Toronto
I had to finally try this Canadian classic! While the magic has somewhat worn off, thanks to globalization and the spread of this chain outside of Canada, I had not actually ever tried it before. Sadly, the location I visited was out of maple donuts, so it does not truly feel like I’ve had the authentic experience. I guess that’s just another reason to come back.
There are several locations of this coffee shop, and despite it being a chain the coffee was still excellent. The location we visited was in the Distillery District – and the building was gorgeous on top of the coffee being delicious and the perfect way to pass the time while waiting for our brunch reservation.
White Squirrel Coffee
For a quick coffee, White Squirrel is a stop on Queen Street worth making. There is no interior portion to this coffee shop, just a walk-up window. The baristas were super nice, cracking jokes and serving up coffee quickly despite the ever-building line on the street. It’s next door to a lovely shop that had an exterior display of flowers worth perusing while I waited for my flat white.
A quick stop, I didn’t do any work here but Jimmy’s Coffee is a lovely spot for a pick-me-up or you could stay and do work at a table. It was a cute spot and the barista was welcoming. It’s on Ossington Avenue just off Queen’s Street. I had a delicious almond cappuccino.
This coffee shop is in downtown Toronto and I stopped here on my way to the CN Tower. The almond croissant was to die for and the coffee was good too. They had a lovely outdoor patio and despite being in a busy area of the city, it was off on a side street that was not polluted with too much traffic. Definitely a great option for coffee in the business district that isn’t Starbucks, Tim Horton’s, or another chain. French Made had a lot of pastry options too. It’s a taste of Paris in Toronto and it’s located on the ground floor of the Bisha hotel.
I came to this spot twice during my stint in Toronto, as it offered a stable Wi-Fi connection, plenty of seating and delicious coffee and breakfast sandwiches. I came here for two half-days of working, and really enjoyed the large table workspace and outlets for charging my laptop. The staff at Cafe23 were super nice and it was just an overall lovely workspace if you’re working from home while in Toronto. There is also a lovely garden patio and plenty of bakery items to choose from.
I had an amazing time in Toronto. It’s a super fun city that I would love to return to again someday. It was also very special to reconnect with old travel friends after nearly 3 years, I think we all want to see the people we care about who have been stuck in different places around the world during these past two years of the pandemic. Toronto, I’ll be back again someday!